Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 218-219
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African Theatre and Politics: The Evolution of Theatre in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe—A Comparative Study, by Jane Plastow. Cross-Cultures 24. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. 286 pp. ISBN 90-420—38-4 paper.
This is an ambitious book, and a much needed one. Jane Plastow has rare credentials: she teaches English as well as drama; she was the co-director of the Cultural Center in Dar es Salaam; she taught in various drama departments; she has been involved in the academic as well as in the political side of theater practice. Her choice of countries is certainly biased in [End Page 218] favor of socialist, or so-called socialist, countries, even though between the rigid Marxism of the Ethiopian and Ujamaa socialism, there was not much in common. But at least in these countries art seemed to be taken seriously.
The author tries to establish a continuity between ritual and communal practices and modern stage drama. All kinds of shows and performances are to be witnessed and she includes all of this in an historical framework: the "early colonial drama" marked by conformity, Christianity, and suppression; the "liberation struggle," the "time for hope": the theater of Independence; and finally "disillusion and debate" in the contemporary theater. She met a large number of theater practitioners, read everything about these matters, and produced a well-researched book.
My concern is with the contemporary scene: Are there any professional actors? Is there a movie industry, in Zimbabwe for instance? I regret that in her historical attempt she did not discuss the thesis of the French sociologist Jean Duvignaud about the development of drama and the increasing specialization of the participants in the communicative process. It would also help to get a synchronic perspective on the contemporary articulation of the different segments of the dramatic community. She seems to discard literary drama as a bit irrelevant, and seems to resent literary playwrights and their "elitism," and countries where "literary intellectuals" control the development of drama. I believe it is not possible to cut the development of drama from the history of literature and I would like to see this question addressed more openly instead of running underground throughout the book. The discussion of my favorite Swahili dramatist—the archetypal literary individualist, but also a great poet, whose plays have been read, for the last two decades, by hundreds of thousands of students in East Africa—Ebrahim Hussein, is a bit short, and not satisfying since the question of his literary success is not clearly addressed. The book should also be read in a comparative perspective and it is a pity that neighboring East African countries are not treated: nothing on Kenya, nor on Uganda. The concept of evolution is certainly responsible for this peculiar angle: do masks, books, screens modify the "living theater"? These general questions stem from reading this book— which will be a guide to us for some time, and which, despite its shortcomings, is certainly a landmark for the history of drama in Africa.
Alain Ricard is with the Centre D'Etudes d'Afrique Noire at the Universities of Bordeaux.